Students teach healthy living in Nicaragua

For pre-med students like senior Courtney Laubach, the Union College International Rescue and Relief (IRR) program’s semester in Nicaragua provides hands-on experience that gives them a unique advantage in medical school.  “I’m really excited to go to Nicaragua,” said Laubach. “It will be good to provide medical care and make a difference in someone’s health through education. You can treat the symptoms, but only education can really help in the long term.”

Sixteen students, accompanied by instructors Aaron and Lauren Kent, will make the trip this spring to live in Nicaragua for three months and learn about survival, tropical medicine and community development. The semester-long trip taken each spring by graduating IRR students will include the application of survival, emergency management and international relations skills the students have learned throughout their college careers.

Already certified emergency medical technicians, the students have focused on emergency medical practices this fall in Emergency Care I class, and have created classes to teach Nicaraguans in the remote North Atlantic jungle area about basic, yet important health practices. “Often these people don’t have a lot of access to knowledge about basic health and hygiene habits,” said Laubach. “Our group is teaching a class about malaria and how to prevent it. Since malaria is spread by mosquitos, we think it would be a really good incentive to get people to listen if we actually give them mosquito nets.”

Laubach and fellow students Finianne Umali and Sarah Steahly are raising funds to purchase 100 mosquito nets—at $15 per treated net—to distribute to the people who take their class. “Often families have only one mosquito net, if any at all,” said Laubach. “It’s a concern because they can’t all fit under it at night and the children usually get left out, putting them at a higher risk of getting bit by mosquitos and contracting malaria.”

Although made up of different students each year, Union College IRR groups return to several of the same villages in remote areas each year. “This year, we’ll be going to a lot of villages previous groups haven’t been to before,” said Laubach. “We’re going on a river trip for two weeks, which is twice as long as trips in the past.”

“We move farther up the river every year,” said instructor Lauren Kent. “It’s very remote in some places; a two to three day boat trip just to get anything that resembles medical care.”

While Laubach and her team raise funds for mosquito nets, Kent hopes to raise even more for additional projects. “The level of poverty is incredible,” she said. “There’s a severe lack of resources, but it’s great to improve the living conditions, and even lives, solely by providing the medical assistance that we do. It’s hard coming back since we live in such a consumer-driven world. They couldn’t even fathom what we have.”

One way is through providing Pap smear tests for the local women. “HPV (cervical cancer) kills about 40 percent of women in Nicaragua,” said Kent. “It’s a sexually transmitted disease and largely combatted in the U.S. by condom use, vaccination and annual Pap smear testing. Testing for STDs or cervical cancer is not available on the northwestern side of the country, but by working with local medical aviation missionaries we can provide Pap smear testing at our free clinics and fly samples to the capital for laboratory diagnostic results. We then inform women of positive results and can help them with prescription treatment or a referral for advanced care.”  The IRR program also purchases medications worth nearly $150,000 to distribute to the Miskito Indian tribes during the three-month excursion.

Union College’s International Rescue and Relief baccalaureate degree program is designed for adventurous students who want to work in public safety or serve around the world through humanitarian relief. Certified as emergency medical technicians during their first year, each student must also complete training in wilderness survival, search and rescue, swift water rescue, high angle rescue and other disaster response skills.

If you would like to help purchase mosquito nets or other supplies for the student to take to Nicaragua, please visit